WARNING: The following article contains spoilers for Disney's Dumbo, now in theaters.
Tim Burton is among the most distinctive filmmakers in modern cinema. Regardless of your opinion on his artistic output, it's difficult to argue otherwise. His style is recognizable, his tics well known.
Burton has been making movies for more than three decades, and it's tough to look back at the past 10 years of his career without feeling disheartened. He has directed 19 films, and the last five have felt like parodies of his earlier work. But while his take on the Disney classic Dumbo might not be perfect, it is a refreshing return to form, and easily his best feature in more than a decade.
Much of what defines Burton and his style also transformed into his most derided elements. His films became repetitious, often exploring the same kind of characters (usually troubled but optimistic outsiders) in the same kind of settings (some sort of suburbia), going on the same kind of journey (to self-acceptance). Dumbo does touch on that to a degree, especially in regard to Milly (Nico Parker), the daughter of Holt (Colin Farrell). But it actually takes the time to explore that arc instead of merely parroting those themes.
Just like Dumbo ends up stuck in the circus and separated from his mother, Milly is constrained by the world around her. After the loss of her mother, before the events of the film, there's no one to support her desire to become a scientist. Her disappointment is only magnified when Holt returns from war missing an arm, learns not only is his wife dead, but his horses have been sold and his job relegated to elephant wrangler.
But Burton tweaks their journey, making it less one-note than "these poor people want something different." Dumbo focuses not on anger but on resignation. Millie and Holt are consistently dealt new blows, even when they think something might change. But it's when they understand one another that they come together and begin to repair their relationship. One of the most impactful scenes has Holt finding her in a mock "home of the future" exhibit at the theme park, Dreamland. She leads him inside, and shows him a mannequin of a father, fitted with a robotic replacement arm. It's her showing her dad what science can do, and why she wants to pursue that path.
It's a quiet moment, especially by Burton's standards. It reinforces the themes about embracing yourself and using that to change your situation, in a visually compelling, but emotionally straightforward, way. That's the overall strength of Dumbo, especially compared to other Burton projects. While it's as bombastic as you'd expect a movie about a flying elephant to be, it never overwhelms with the whimsy, like weaker Burton features have. The movie actually plays things subtly, especially with the acrobat Colette (Eva Green).
A performer for Dreamland, she's neither the cruel star she's set up as nor the plain love interest. She instead proves to be a supportive figure to the ones she opens up to, and any romance between her and Holt is relegated to more of an earned respect. She even spearheads the escape from Dreamland atop Dumbo, not out of outright loyalty but out of an emphatic appreciation for his experience.
Even the massive circuses are comparatively subdued, with Burton finding the right balance between the instantly interesting imagery without going too far into his idiosyncrasies. The film pays attention to the character's perspectives, instead of merely resolving the conflict elsewhere while Burton plays with the world. It pays off when Dumbo, who spends most of the film only flying because of the feathers he sucks up with his trunk, is forced to soar without one, and proves that he can. Like Milly eventually using her scientific skill to bring motion pictures to the circus, Dumbo realizes he has the power to change his world himself.
Dumbo is by no means perfect. It's meandering at times, more concerned with having fun with moments, like the Pink Elephants on Parade, and with performances by Michael Keaton and Danny DeVito than with pushing the narrative forward. Millie's brother Joe (Finley Hobbins) serves almost no purpose, and could have been cut to give Millie more focus. And the script by Ehren Kruger (Ghost in the Shell) is workmanlike and fails to make the story and characters as deep as they could be. But there's still a focus on character here, and when the film works, it works.
Dumbo has a touch of the fantastic, while never completely losing the emotional connection to the characters. It's immediately recognizable as a Burton film, but it never beats the audience over the head with it. It explores themes Burton has often dealt with, but with smaller character beats that make the characters more impressive than the script had managed. Dumbo proves Burtonstill has to chops to make a movie soar.
Directed by Tim Burton, Dumbo stars Danny DeVito, Eva Green, Colin Farrell, Nico Parker, Finley Hobbins, Michael Keaton and Alan Arkin.